Film Marks Balancing Act Between Twin Towers Wednesday was the 34th anniversary of Phillipe Pettit's walk between the towers of the then-unfinished World Trade Center on a wire high above the ground without a net. Now a documentary film says it's time to remember the Twin Towers in a different way.
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Film Marks Balancing Act Between Twin Towers

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Film Marks Balancing Act Between Twin Towers

Film Marks Balancing Act Between Twin Towers

Film Marks Balancing Act Between Twin Towers

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Wednesday was the 34th anniversary of Phillipe Pettit's walk between the towers of the then-unfinished World Trade Center on a wire high above the ground without a net. Now a documentary film says it's time to remember the Twin Towers in a different way.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

On this day in 1974, Phillipe Pettit made his way gingerly between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, more than a thousand feet above the ground without a harness, a net, or any self doubt. He walked on a wire. The planning took years - the event, less than an hour. A new film chronicles Pettit's high wire act and the sometimes ridiculous moments leading up to it. The movie is called "Man on Wire," and as Karen Michel reports, it's not your average documentary.

KAREN MICHEL: Even in small spaces, Phillipe Pettit thinks big.

(Soundbite of movie, "Man on Wire")

Mr. PHILLIPE PETTIT (Tightrope Walker): We are in the smallest theater in the world. It's a little barn that I built - first, to house my equipment as a wire walker. But then I put that little practice stage, and I had to transform this little barn into a mini theater. So now I have velvet curtain, and I actually do little performances sometimes with, you know, the kids around. But one day, I really want to make this theater a very official happening.

MICHEL: Outside his Catskills barn, Pettit has set up his practice wire. About the circumference of a man's thumb, it's a section of the wire he used to cross between the Twin Towers.

(Soundbite of movie, "Man on Wire")

Mr. PETTIT: Once upon a time - now that's how you start fairy tales. And actually, my story is a fairy tale.

MICHEL: His big idea began in a Paris dentist's office in the late 1960s. The scene is recreated in the film.

(Soundbite of movie, "Man on Wire")

Mr. PETTIT: I have opened a newspaper at a page, and I see something magnificent, something that inspire me. I see two towers. And the article says one day, those towers will be built. And when they are, they will become the highest in the world. Now, I need to have that. But everybody is watching, and - but I need that page. And so what I do is under the cover of sneeze…

(Soundbite of sneezing, ripping)

Mr. PETTIT: I steal the page, put it under my jacket and go out. Now, of course, I would have a tooth ache for a week. But what's the pain in comparison that now I have acquired my dream?

MICHEL: As in all of the reenactments in "Man on Wire," the scene is in black and white. Anything real, whether current or archival, is in color. Director James Marsh doesn't call the approach docudrama, much less straight-ahead documentary.

Mr. JAMES MARSH (Film Directory): My idea was always to make it kind of a movie experience, as opposed to a kind of, you know, sensible documentary. I felt that the story was crazy enough to just sort of - of course it's a documentary. Of course it all happened. Of course, you know, all the people in it are real. But the story is so preposterous and so unbelievable that I felt that we had to kind of make it very operatic.

MICHEL: Which, in part, means long. "Man on Wire" is meant to elicit the kind of communal awe that only the big screen can provoke.

Mr. MARSH: "Man on Wire" is "Mission Impossible." For better or for worse, it's a great - dare I say it - Hollywood movie. It's about someone who has an impossible dream. And the impediments before that dream are insurmountable, and yet he does it. And it's all true. You know, there's no special effects in the movie. It's all true. So I would love to have "Man on Wire" in multiplexes. I think it kind of belongs there.

MICHEL: Marsh took the title from a report by one of the police officers called to the scene after Pettit was spotted overhead.

Mr. MARSH: When he comes to write the report, he has to kind of describe the incident. And it just says "Man on Wire," which is true in the most limited sense. But it felt like a very good way of having a simple title that spoke of the authorities, you know, their characterization of this. It's a "Man on Wire."

MICHEL: Like the description, the walk, the dance was itself both poetic and practical. Pettit and his team had to figure out the engineering, plan for the sway of the building, the effect of the wind and scheme away to get the rigging into the two buildings unnoticed and then affix it to the outside unnoticed.

(Soundbite of movie, "Man on Wire")

Mr. PETTIT: And now the guard comes. Has he seen us?

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

Mr. PETTIT: Has he heard us? Has he seen the tarp move?

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

Mr. PETTIT: But the guard comes and leaned against the structure, and he seems to be a foot away.

MICHEL: Pettit had to convince half a dozen people to stick with him through the years of planning and, finally, execution. Director James Marsh.

Mr. MARSH: Phillipe is incredibly persuasive, hence these people, you know, being part of what is a crazy idea. However beautiful and romantic it is, just the idea of someone walking in that void so high up, it is insane.

Mr. PETTIT: Yes, I am completely mad, but you have to have contempt for the established rules if you want to break them and if you want to venture in new continent. So madness is something that I put very highly in my list of virtues.

MICHEL: One of the virtues of "Man on Wire" is it never makes connections between Pettit's wire walk and the destruction of the towers more than a quarter century later, though director James Marsh knows the thought is unavoidable.

Mr. MARSH: It's not the purpose of the film to make any of those parallels. I think if you respect the audience and want to tell them a great story, you allow them to complete the film. It's not for me to complete it for them. I mean, this is a big, weighty elephant-in-the-room issue here, with the imagery we all have of those towers being destroyed. There's no need for any interpretation of anything on my part.

MICHEL: Phillipe Pettit had hoped to walk between newly built Twin Towers. The planning and haggling and, ultimately, the design for one building pains him.

Mr. PETTIT: At the beginning, when I studied the Twin Towers, they became very quickly a kind of companion to communion with, to communicate to. They became my friends and they became alive. They became really vibrating with life.

MICHEL: For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

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'Man On Wire': Defying Gravity And Time

'Man On Wire': Defying Gravity And Time

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Philippe Petit's stroll through the Manhattan skies took place more than 1,300 feet above ground. Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris Images hide caption

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Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris Images

Philippe Petit's stroll through the Manhattan skies took place more than 1,300 feet above ground.

Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris Images

Man on Wire

  • Director: James Marsh
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 90 minutes

Rated PG-13: In addition to acts of daring, some nudity and drug usage is featured.

Art for art's sake: "I did something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a 'why?'" Petit says, "and the beauty of it is that I don't have a 'why.'" Magnolia Pictures hide caption

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Magnolia Pictures

Art for art's sake: "I did something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a 'why?'" Petit says, "and the beauty of it is that I don't have a 'why.'"

Magnolia Pictures

The famous American male daredevils — the Evel Kneivels, the test pilots — carry a macho vibe; when I see them interviewed, I often get a sense they're still trying to prove themselves to their dads.

But the Frenchman Philippe Petit has a different aura. He's the guy who in 1974 walked — and danced — on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, 110 stories above ground.

When it was over and he was taken down in handcuffs, American reporters pressed close to ask him why. In James Marsh's exhilarating documentary Man on Wire, Petit, now in his late 50s, still can't get over the absurdity of the question.

In Man on Wire, Marsh asks not why? but how the hell? He tells Petit's story like a heist picture: part talking heads; part period footage of Petit honing his balance and pulling off lesser — but still breathtaking — stunts, like a walk over the Sydney Harbor Bridge; and part Mission: Impossible-style re-enactments.

Those re-enactments are stylized, obviously fake, but they're edited with such urgency they snap right into place. They're bridges to the main event, the "coup" as Petit calls it, which we get to see from many angles.

What follows are two threads: the building of the World Trade Center, in footage from the '60s, magnificent, awesome, deeply sad; and Petit's idee fixe — magnificent, awesome and deeply egocentric — that the towers are being created for him.

Petit had a girlfriend at the time, who says, "Each day is like a work of art to him." He talks in the film of seizing the space, defying society's soul-killing laws, defining oneself through action.

Very existentialist, very inspiring — unless you're driving under the Sydney Harbor Bridge and a guy falls through your roof and you die. Part of me says, "We can't permit people to endanger themselves and the public."

The other part says, "Wow."

There's a long-distance shot of Petit on that Sydney bridge in which you can't see the wire: He looks as if he's walking on the air.

There's another shot of him suspended between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral: Inside, priests are prostrating themselves before the altar, unaware there's a man above them swaying on a tiny wire, juggling.

The Trade Center scheme involves cohorts from several continents, figuring out how to shoot a steel cable from one tower to the other, rocking the wire to simulate the wind while he practices in a field.

And then comes the day and the night and the day, which I won't spoil. It's funny, though, that at the same time Petit is going up, Richard Nixon is coming down.

It goes without saying — and happily, Man on Wire doesn't say it — that all this took place in a more naive time, that the notion of foreigners with fake IDs slipping past guards into the Twin Towers has a different meaning now. So does the prospect of falling from the top.

The most miraculous thing about Man on Wire is not the feat itself. It's that as you watch it, the era long gone, the World Trade Center long gone, the movie feels as if it's in the present tense. That nutty existentialist acrobat pulled it off: For an instant, he froze time.